Why Polytheism Is Vital To Paganism

Not all of us are polytheists. I get that. I’ve just spent a week watching Grey’s Anatomy marathon fashion, and I’ve thought very little about Paganism. When I did think about it, I thought about the things that annoyed me. Then I reminded myself I was on vacation and put it out of my mind. All things end, and so has my “vacation.” I’m not certain you can call it a vacation if you still make time to work everyday, but that seems to be the modern thing, to remain half at work when lounging on a beach. I didn’t go to a beach. I went down the hall to recliner and a grilled cheese sandwich to park my butt in front of a tv. But my mind was on a vacation. And now it’s back.

What to write about? The things I thought about regarding Paganism over the last week annoyed me, and I don’t want to write about things that annoy me. I want to write about what inspires me. But all I can think about are the things that annoy me. Why do they annoy me? While for each individual issue there is a separate and rational reason, my annoyance is over-arching. It blankets Paganism as a whole, thickly and without reservation. But there was a sticking point: polytheism.

I’ve written a lot about polytheism, especially over the last year. I’ve given it a break recently, but today I wondered why it stood out among all the things in Paganism in my mind. Then I got the answer. I know why I am annoyed.

Right now Goddess-worship, tarot, astrology, reiki, magic, ritual, meditation  and all the things we practice are being reclaimed and invigorated. But not by us. By bland New Age philosophers and by Progressive Christians. In the larger picture, they own these things. They are the face of all our practices and theology. Ecological spirituality, shadow work, energetic healing, shamanic journeying and the power of intention are all things they own. For every small-town priestess teaching her handful of students about the power of intention there are millions watching Oprah express the same concepts and principles on television. They are the ones buying the bulk of the incense and tarot decks and crystals and attending workshops. They are the ones buying the books by Deepak Chopra on using Merlin as a guide to self-transformation.

They own it all. Everything. There is nothing you can name that they do not own. Even Vodou is practiced by Catholics using the names of saints instead of orishas. Even those things that have originated within our communities are now owned by them. The Divine Feminine is now a liberal Christian concept. Christian theology and atheism have taken over the Greek philosophers. They own it all.

Realizing that hurts. Being part of a multi-faith community like Patheos exacerbates the hurt. Over on our Spirituality channel you will find a Lutheran mystic talking about Mercury retrograde, premonitions and gurus like Tony Robbins and James Arthur Ray. If you are a tarot or astrology or reiki blogger, you would be part of the Spirituality channel, not the Pagan channel. That peeved me at first. Beyond that it made me angry. I felt like we owned the tarot. We owned astrology.

Here in my little Pagan echo chamber, in our self-imposed ghetto, tarot is deeply Pagan. Why? It originated with Christianity, was practiced for centuries by Christian heretics and staunchly Christian gypsies. We may have some of the most brilliant tarot scholars in the world in our communities, but we don’t own the tarot. Not by any stretch of the imagination.

We don’t own magick. You think D. John Dee built the Enochian system of magick in order to better understand Cerridwen or honor Pan? Of course not. He was seeking a powerful and direct channel to the Christian God that would rival anything the Catholic church could conjure up. Maybe the frame of reference you use to invoke the Goddess of Witchcraft is derived from the Kabbalah, but you don’t own that. It’s not what it was meant to do. And maybe pagans of old first charted the stars, but astrology as we know it is the product of medieval Christianity and Islam. We don’t own that either.

Even our symbols aren’t owned by us. The pentacle is the star of Saint Andrew, who was known not for derring do but for quietly and persuasively bringing people to Christ, including many of his more flamboyant fellow apostles. The ankh is worn by many African-American Christians. The triskele and Brighid’s cross by Celtic Christians. The Goddess symbols by theological feminists of the Christian faith. The symbols of cauldron, chalice, blade and wand by heretical Christians steeped in Arthurian mythos.

It’s the grand cosmic joke. Nothing we do isn’t done by some branch of the Abrahamic faith, and it is done by more of them, with more respectability and wider recognition. We own very little. We don’t own animism or panentheism or pantheism or necromancy or ancestor reverence or divination. We own very little.

But we own polytheism. The Pagan and indigenous peoples of the world own polytheism. It is quite distinctly ours and not theirs. Even the Catholics with their legions of saints have spent a great deal of energy and thought to prevent themselves from being labeled polytheists. That distinction lay at the heart of the Trinity: the mighty three-in-one.

I knew this intuitively, but never consciously until now. I sought out polytheists instinctively in building a team of writers. I agonized over my own polytheism. If we were to have a voice here at Patheos distinct and unique, it had to be a polytheist one. Because that is all we own. In the larger picture, it is all we have domain over. It is all that is properly designated as ours and ours alone. Because the Lutheran astrologers, the Catholic tarot readers, the Episcopal Divine Feminists and the Jewish magic to avert the evil eye will always outnumber us and be more recognizable.

It hurts. It doesn’t feel fair. It feels like they get everything, and we will always sit at the back of the bus regarding the practices that are so dear to us. In the end, we only have one piece that is ours alone. Only one.

Not all of us are polytheists. But for our communities, polytheism is the one thing we own. The one thing we have that they don’t want. The one thing they cannot take from us without destroying their own faith in the process. It is all we have.

That is why polytheism is important. It will always be important to our communities, and it will become more vital and central as we grow. We may not like that, but it is true. I’m not certain I like it. Any practice you undertake or philosophy you espouse will make you welcome in the New Age movement or among the liberal, progressive branches of Abrahamic religions. Polytheism makes you distinct. Makes our communities distinct. It’s all we own.

I don’t know about you, but this makes me quiet, sober, reflective. And a wee bit scared.

About Star Foster

Polytheistic Wiccan initiated into the Ravenwood tradition, she has many opinions. Some of them are actually useful.

  • Brian Rush

    Star, in all honesty, I don’t see your point. Are religions compartmentalized, so that what is a part of one is automatically disqualified from being a part of another? If that were so, how could liberal Christians be worshiping the Goddess? For that matter, how could Christians, Muslims, and Jews all be monotheists (at least in theory)? How could African-American Christians be sporting Ankhs, which are after all ancient Egyptian religious symbols of divine immortality?

    Isn’t most everything that is believed and practiced in any religion borrowed from another, or shared with another?

    If the answer to that question is yes — and I think that’s self-evident, frankly — then what difference does it make if this, that, or the other item common to Pagan belief and practice is also practiced in other faiths? When it comes to recognizing the divine feminine or valuing the natural world, why would we even WANT these things to remain exclusive Pagan possessions? Aren’t we — as human beings, not the minuscule Pagan subcategory thereof — far, far better off if ideas like this become common currency and values that everyone believes in no matter what their religious framework?

    I also think you’re missing something in regard to polytheism itself, in that it’s not properly defined by stated belief but by behavior. Is Hinduism polytheistic? Yes and no; in its theology Hinduism recognizes a unity underlying the diversity of the gods (and also of phenomena and of consciousness), but in practice yes, Hindus worship multiple deities. Same with Christians who practice Voudou rites; that’s clearly polytheistic behavior and if they insist they’re monotheists, well, that doesn’t change what they’re doing.

    By the same token, is there anything wrong with Pagans recognizing, as Hindus do, that there is a unity underlying the diversity of the gods? I don’t think there is — especially since that’s TRUE.

    What I can see happening at some point in the future, and I can see the beginnings of it right now, is a blurring of boundaries so that “religions” cease to be discrete entities but become expressions of ideas and spiritual creativity and there is a lot of interaction and borrowing going on. I cannot help but regard this as a good thing, especially in contrast to the centuries of vicious religious conflict which mar and deface the history of civilization.

    • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

       Hindus, like Catholics, work hard to distance themselves from polytheism and maintain their monotheist label.

      • Soran

        Interesting point, I was just listening to a podcast by T. Thorn Coyle where she was on a panel of Hindus and Pagans discussing our relationship to each other. And one that struck me is that as little as 10 years ago, Hindus claiming their Monotheism was common. However, within recent years, there is a movement to reclaim their true Polytheistic identity.

    • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

       Also, truth is subjective. There are many polytheists who would argue against an underlying unity such as the Hindus advocate.

    • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

      By the same token, is there anything wrong with Pagans recognizing, as Hindus do, that there is a unity underlying the diversity of the gods? I don’t think there is — especially since that’s TRUE.

      If you think that’s true, then you’re not a polytheist; you’re a monist.  If you want to be a monist, that’s fine, but don’t call it polytheism and insist your monism is TRUE when that’s not the belief of most polytheists.

    • Aine Llewellyn

       “By the same token, is there anything wrong with Pagans recognizing, as
      Hindus do, that there is a unity underlying the diversity of the gods? I
      don’t think there is — especially since that’s TRUE.”

      People have already called you out on this, but I think it’s way uncool to state that your beliefs are TRUE when they’re pretty dang subjective. I don’t think all the gods have an underlying unity, and I get reasonably frustrated when other Pagans demands that I accept the ‘truth’ of monism.

      “What I can see happening at some point in the future, and I can see the
      beginnings of it right now, is a blurring of boundaries so that
      “religions” cease to be discrete entities but become expressions of
      ideas and spiritual creativity and there is a lot of interaction and
      borrowing going on. I cannot help but regard this as a good thing,
      especially in contrast to the centuries of vicious religious conflict
      which mar and deface the history of civilization.”

      Me, I’m not a fan of the melting pot – leads to too much erasure of cultures and practices, as well as people who don’t want their religions and spiritualities to be ‘borrowed’ from. I am a /religious/ person, and I would like for my religion to remain an discrete entity rather than a formless blob of spirituality.

  • Maite_cat

    Hello Star!! You are spot on in your analisys (although I’d give Tarot as a system a much shorter history, deeply enmeshed with the history of card games, but this is a different issue… ). I certainly agree with all your ideas and I do hope they will be also understand by others in our community!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=590663568 Carl McColman

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece. One of the reasons I set Paganism aside and returned to Christian practice was, after co-writing “Magic of the Celtic Gods and Goddesses,” recognizing that I, both in belief and practice, simply am not a polytheist. And in that recognition, suddenly I had a hard time coming up with reasons to be a Pagan instead of a Christian. It was the right choice for me, but I wonder: how many polytheists currently operating within the monotheist religions are waiting to discover a way of articulating who they really are? 

    I think one of the gifts that the Pagan community can give to the larger faith conversation is a true polytheology/polythealogy, articulating the story of belief/spirituality/practice/devotion anchored in a cosmology where, to use Stephen Prothero’s phrase, “god is not one.” But I think that it’s a bit simplistic to say the Abrahamics “don’t want” polytheism. As the cult of the saints reveals, monotheist believers are perfectly happy to be polytheists in practice, as long as they can figure out a way to reconcile their thoughts and their deeds. Perhaps as the Pagan community finds its voice and can articulate a coherent polytheist worldview/practice, it will help the Abrahamics become a bit clearer about what they do — and don’t — believe.

    • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

       Thanks Carl. I think polytheology is a discussion that is growing and deepening every day. It doesn’t hurt that the ancients made a pretty good stab it before we came along!

  • Simon Jadis

    Star, this is so accurate and perfect, yet depressing at the same time. I’ve honestly been annoyed with a lot of New Age things for a long time, and you pretty well defined most of those reasons in here.

    I do feel that sense of encroachment. I mean, I would expect for Pagans (or members of any other religion, for that matter) to “own” prayer. And I try to look at things like divination that way. It’s always strange to hear someone performing the same practice that I might, but credit to “the angels.” While I don’t like it when people say “angels” when they really mean “benevolent spirits” (which is kind of the opposite of the Biblical meaning), I am much more bothered when they actually mean “Divine Agents of Yahweh are guiding which cards I pull from this deck.”

    Now, I’m not a polytheist because it’s “unique” or because it’s “ours.” I’m a polytheist because, well, I believe that the Gods exist, and that though They are inexorably linked to one another, They are also distinct and not simply the same God or few Gods in different guises — in much the same way that Palm Beach is not the same as Myrtle Beach which is not the same as Lake Victoria or the various coastlines of the British Isles.

    But I do treasure my polytheism, in part for the reasons that you state. I consider God-and-Goddess-only Wiccans to be Pagans, and monotheist Pagans to be Pagans, and Hindus to be Pagans (which, by any definition of Paganism that I would accept, they are, including those who lean towards presenting their beliefs as monotheistic). As Christianity (like any religion) learns to overcome challenges to its adherents, it adapts and evolves to incorporate new things and old things that will make it more appealing, just as it has for two millennia. But I think that it’s safe to say that they won’t make a genuine effort to absorb polytheism.

  • katseye

    i think the article shows us  something that we tend to forget. we are all one.  we forget that the conquering hero rides into town and knocks down the old gods, and holds his gods up for all to worship. and that little things from the old gods are kept and insterted into the new religion, keeping the old alive, if just a little.
     my luthrean grandmothers tradition of saying a prayer while kneading bread, is actualy a jewish tradition, but now i do it also but with pagan promises whispered while working the dough.  no matter our religion or spirituality, when it comes down to it, we are one and the same. when you pour a pitcher of water out, the water doesnt go away. its absorbed into the earth. is it gone then? no it comes back as oxygen, and fogand condensation, until it comes back to earth as rain. so, by saying that this is pagan or that is christian  isnt enough. its all one. and we are all one together.

    • Simon Jadis

       I would mostly agree. However, I think that even if certain beliefs, ideas, and truths (always an awkward word to use) are perennial, that does not mean that we should not fight to maintain our religious identity.

    • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

       It’s a nice thought but it is not always true in practice that we are all one.

    • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

      I think “we have similar practices and motivations for them” is not the same thing as being “all one.”  If there really were any truth to the “all one” monism that many multifaith activists have, then we’d see a lot more peace and unity amongst religious people in the world.  As there are very moral and strongly adhering religious people in every religion who likewise don’t see themselves as “the same” and “all one” as people in other religions, I think it’s more likely that those who believe an “all one” idea are the ones who have to justify their belief with more than saying it as a slogan than that they are speaking a universal truth.

  • http://www.facebook.com/KristyRobinett Kristy Robinett

    Don’t we all learn from one another? I hate fitting into categories and being labeled anything, which is why I love surprising people by saying I am a Lutheran Psychic Medium Modern Mystic. I have studied many religions, although I don’t claim to be an expert in any. I have friends (and clients) who are Catholic, Pagan, Hindu, Mormon, Wiccan, Jewish, Athiest, etc. I don’t feel threatened by them, nor them me. If we all fit into one category, one label, how boring would that be?

    • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

       It’s not a matter of feeling threatened. It’s a matter of identity and having a place that is yours.

      • http://www.facebook.com/KristyRobinett Kristy Robinett

        I suppose that I feel that sometimes people believe that the definition of identity is a label and why do people have to fit into a tiny category. I know *exactly* who I am. But in order to get to that point, many have to search and in order to find. And then there are many who go through that process all over again even when they (think) they find themselves. It could be because of divorce, marriage, death, loss of job, etc.

        I am not a Tarot reader. 
        I am not a New Ager. Honestly, get to know me and you will figure that out quickly.
        I do not fit into a category and don’t want to.The path in life is never a clear one, and there are several path to follow – branches off of every single path. 

        • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

           I’m not attacking you Kristy. There is no need to get defensive. You were just a useful example of someone from a majority religion who embraces many things that we sometimes think we “own” in Paganism. I am sorry if my using you as an example came off as an attack. That was not my intention.

          • http://www.facebook.com/KristyRobinett Kristy Robinett

            I don’t feel attacked, and I am sorry if I am coming across defensive at all. I was just trying to bring some more color to the conversation. :)

  • Gersimi Seastar

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I always thought that the Star of St Andrew had eight points?

    • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

       You are right. I had it confused with Gawain’s star, which represents the five wounds of Christ among other things.

  • http://piereligion.org/pierintro.html Slag310

    I enjoyed your article, though I disagreed with it. What the New-Agers and all their vaguely monotheistic suckers-on seem to lack and actually miss are Gods and Goddesses. As to the rest, we can take it or leave it (I can do without Tarot, for example), but we don’t own it any less because somebody else has borrowed it.  Anyway, keep up the good work and don’t let things get you down.  It’s all coming through.

  • Nicole Youngman

    There’s no such things as a pure path or religion. All of them have always influenced one another and they always will; any categories we come up with are always going to be fuzzy around the edges. I’m not sure that looking for something in particular that we “own” is helpful or necessary, and as a non-hard-polytheist myself, I’d hate to think that my more or less pantheistic perspective would be considered “less Pagan” or “not Pagan enough” because I don’t believe in the one thing that Pagans somehow “own.”

    Having said that, this does speak to why I’ve never been crazy about incorporating practices that derive from ceremonial magick into my own work–it’s too (Judeo-)Christian, ironically! Likewise with tarot–the traditional decks with the angels etc irritate me to no end. I love tarot cards and their history fascinates me, but I like to work with decks that have more explicitly Pagan imagery.

  • http://johnfranc.blogspot.com/ John Beckett

    Do we own the modern archetype of Witch?  Certainly folk healers are universal, as is the concept of witch-as-evildoer or witch-as-scapegoat (i.e. – “witch killings” in parts of Africa and elsewhere).  But the whole broom-riding, cauldron-stirring, spell-casting witch – isn’t that exclusively ours?  And the archetype of Druid as well?  Or are they too associated with fiction and fantasy?

    That’s more of a discussion question than a debate point – I’m not sure how strongly I feel about it.

    I do agree that polytheism is of great importance to Paganism – it certainly was to me.  Once I started treating the gods and goddesses like they were individual beings, my connection to them strengthened, my practice deepened and the spiritual path I was struggling to find became very clear. 

  • WhiteBirch

    This is a fascinating thought, Star. I have had a hard time coming to terms with my polytheism — for me it’s been the hardest aspect of separating from Christianity and changing the way I think. But ultimately, it’s why I landed here, because the pull I’ve always felt toward gods (plural!) is too deeply part of me to shuck. I don’t know how much I mind whether we “own” the trimmings, but there’s no other home for my polytheism than Paganism. 

  • WhiteBirch

    This is a fascinating thought, Star. I have had a hard time coming to terms with my polytheism — for me it’s been the hardest aspect of separating from Christianity and changing the way I think. But ultimately, it’s why I landed here, because the pull I’ve always felt toward gods (plural!) is too deeply part of me to shuck. I don’t know how much I mind whether we “own” the trimmings, but there’s no other home for my polytheism than Paganism. 

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    I used to be a polytheistic Christian…

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

    Understanding what is truly “ours” is important, and polytheism is an excellent place to start.

  • Todd

    I think scrambling to find something that another religion doesn’t have is a very dubious beginning to a religious life.

    • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

      I don’t see what Star is doing as “scrambling”. It’s more like “grappling”. After all, if one is to be a Pagan, or at least a thoughtful Pagan, one must sooner or later grapple with the question of what Paganism is. And part of answering that question involves answering the question of what, if anything, distinguishes Paganism from non-Paganism.

  • Hawk

    It is not about what we own. It is about what we do.  Polytheism is important to Pagan life and to my own.  For me, the more anyone knows about the elements of my practice the better, even when they are not embraced or used in the same way.
    I had less understanding of these things I value in the past, and I expect to have more understanding of them in the future.  That wouldn’t happen if I didn’t get to embrace them clumsily at first. I do my little thing at  http://walkthecircle.blogspot.com one step at a time, and I invite you to com over and see it.  It isn’t as well presented as you are most days, but as I touch and make things I make the Goddess(es) happy.

    • Todd

      Hawk, simply by the way you speak about the elements of your practice, I will bet that you would be perfectly delighted to find another who observed those same elements. Should that person turn out to be, say, a Muslim Sufi, a Christian Quaker, or a Jewish Kabalist, I doubt you would see that as affecting your choices, or practice. 

  • Todd

    When Christians practice magic or wear ankhs. their ministers regard their doing so as “drifting toward paganism.”

    Why should we disagree?

    We could run away from them, in a vain search for an untainted Paganism, or we could welcome the slow paganization of Christianity.

  • Kcappack

    Personally, I identify more strongly as a polytheist than as a pagan. So, I don’t feel the same angst regarding practices and ownership. I welcome the implicit call to identify along the belief of polytheism from where I’m at in my journey.

  • Ywendragoneye

    Funny, I think of those things as belonging to Pagans, and being borrowed by New Ager’s and open minded monotheists. Doesn’t bother me though – just like I embrace the “Christmas” images at Yuletide – little do these people know that they are carrying on our Pagan traditions – with the veneer of another faith.

    • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

      When it comes to mixing Christianity with anything else there seems to be a defacto “one drop rule” in effect: as soon as any practice or belief is in any way shape or form mixed with Christianity it becomes Christian.

      For example, the “Christianity” supposedly adhered to by many of the greatest Ceremonial Magicians actually has very little to do with Christianity. People like Marsilio Ficino were primarily influenced by Pythagoras, Plato and Hermes Trismegistus, and derived very little, if any, of their spirituality from the teachings of Jesus, Peter, Paul & Co. Nevertheless, Renaissance Mages  had to publicly identify as Christian, and in their published works had to pay lip service to Christianity, and therefore they are routinely identified as Christians. At the very least they should be referred to as Christian Pagan syncretists, and even that requires ignoring the fact that everything that was supposedly “Christian” about Ficino (and Agrippa, Bruno, etc) can be reasonably called into question as an obvious ruse to avoid the rack and the stake (a ruse that, in Bruno’s case, did not suffice).

  • http://henadology.wordpress.com/ Edward

    I agree wholeheartedly with this, because to say that polytheism is what we are uniquely about, is simply to say that the Gods themselves are what we are about, rather than any doctrine: a religion not of “what”, but of “who”.

    • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

      Indeed. In other words: “The Gods are vital to Paganism.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/michele.briere Michele Briere

    Like everything else, we need to evolve. Religion/spirituality evolves along with society.  It is a symbiotic relationship, and as one grows, the other follows. If using tarot, reiki, or whatever helps a Christian get in touch with their spiritual side, let them do it.  We know too much about science and how the world works to revert back to a time when the gods were ALL. Some of us now think of them as aspects of nature, of life, and that doesn’t make us any less pagan than the next clan-sib.

    And as an aside, the Babylonian god Marduk has a pent on his robe. He’s about 4000 years old.

  • Dscarron

    Your point is well taken but it makes the assumption that we “own” memes.  I get into these debates all the time with what the definitions of things are.  Odin is not made up of fuzzy kittens, rainbows and cotton batting.  Sorry.  Not all opinions are equal in that those that are unsupported by lore or something tangible, meaningful or relevant should be cast out from the general application of such to everyone. 

    Those who are concerned about tradition need to produce meaningful stuff.    To secure definitions and ideas, we need to outlast and shape those memes.